Monday, September 10, 2007

Do I Need to Travel to China?

Today at Staples I was waiting to make 5 photocopies at the single copier that was working. An elderly gentleman (probably in his 70s) was photocopying what looked to be (and turned out to be) his legal life documents. He was affable enough--even offered to interrupt his copies to let me jump in, but he said he was almost done and in an effort to fit in more to Southern norms and culture (ie: to be more patient) I said it was OK for me to wait and he really was done within about 7 minutes (a long time for me but in the scheme of things, probably not a big deal).

At any rate, as he finished up, he turned his attention to me and asked: "Are you Hawaiian?"

Let me pause here and note that I was wearing a brown sundress that showed off a lot of my skin, which at this point in the summer is a fairly healthy caramel color. I also had my hair down, and I don't know if these things are stereotypically "Hawaiian" or not but I also have to say that when I have been mistaken for "Hawaiian" it's normally older white American men whose dalliance with the South Pacific has taken the form of a trip to Oahu or Maui where I'm sure they've seen lots of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans who are local and hence "Hawaiian" and perhaps I do look like them. I should also add, though I'm sure you can guess, that this older man is white.

Anyway, I say: "No"

And he insists that I look Hawaiian and I shrug my shoulders and say I'm not, at which point he asks the dreaded question that ALL ASIAN AMERICANS HAVE HAD TO ANSWER AND THAT MOST OF US HATE: "Where ARE you from? Which country?"

Me (sighing inside--I mean, I just want to make 5 lousy photocopies): "I'm from the United States of America."

Him, now a bit flustered: "No, I know that, I mean, where are your parents from...where are your people from?"

Me (not willing to give in): "California"

Him: (now he's bemused and acting like I'm retarded rather than being frustrated by my obvious deference of his questions): "No, I mean what is your ancestry? Where are your ancestors from?"

To which I tell him that if he's asking about my ethnic background, it's China/Chinese.

Him: "Oh! Ni hao?"

Me (now being deliberately obtuse): "Sir, if you are inquiring as to whether I speak Cantonese or Mandarin, I do not."

Him: (now laughing amiably because he thinks we're having a jolly little conversation): "Oh, I've been to China several times and have picked up a few useful phrases. Have you ever visited China?"

Me: (now just annoyed, I mean, he's a nice older fellow, but really, I JUST WANT TO MAKE MY PHOTOCOPIES): "No, I've never been to China."

Him: (he's now VERY SURPRISED and in ADVICE mode): "But you HAVE to go to China. It's where your people are from!"

And I just shrugged and made my photocopies and he left, finally.

And so, here's the question: Do I really NEED to go to China? My Mom grew up in Jamaica (yes, I omitted that from our conversation because I really didn't want to be talking to the man in the first place) and my father fled China in the 1950s. There are no close relatives in China, that I know of. I don't speak Cantonese or Mandarin. I have nothing against China--I would love to walk on the Great Wall, to visit Shanghai, to see the Weigar population of Western China. But there are also places I'd love to go: Italy, Tibet, Costa Rica, Kenya, the Galapagos Islands, Great Britain. Do I owe China a top priority because I have an ethnic connection?


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jennifer said...

Hmmmm...while I appreciate that "johnsonwoods" is concerned about interracial issues, I suspect that this is sort've like getting spammed in the blogosphere. So I have now turned on the "comment moderator" function which means I get to approve or disapprove of comments, and while I can't take off the plus for the website above, I can ask that blog spammers please cease and desist!

JoAnna said...

While there are many aspects of your story I could comment on, I'll provide an anecdote about my own trip to China. I visited China during college, spending 8 months in Beijing participating in a language immersion program. There was one conversation I could predictably have with almost every Chinese taxi driver I encountered. First, they asked if I was Chinese. In my very elementary Mandarin, I answered that I was half-Chinese, half-Filipino. While many needed an explanation of where the Philippines was, the next part of the conversation involved disappointed questions asking why my mother never taught me Chinese. I would tell them that I was born and raised in the United States and that English is the main language spoken there. But this did not satisfy them. While this was many years ago, my assumption is that such attitudes still prevail there. So even if you do go to China some day, I don't think you would have the same kind of “coming home” experience your photocopier friend assumed you would. In fact, you might encounter equally, if not more frustrating conversations about ancestral expectations than the one at Staples.

But China is a beautiful place and I’m glad I spent an extended period of time there…though not so much because of my ethnic connection. I valued exploring the historic city, visiting the various provinces and observing the political-social environment.

Here’s to reaching every spot on your travel wish list!

Jennifer said...

I actually *fibbed* a bit to photocopier guy--I've been to Hong Kong in 1999, which was 2 years after the handover so I was in "China" but it didn't feel like Mainland China (or so I'm told after comparing my experiences with friends who have been to Beijing and parts more rural). Anyway, in Hong Kong I encountered very similar experiences that you do while in Beijing, the whole "Why didn't your parents teach you Chinese" kind of question or "Why don't you learn Chinese now?" In Hong Kong they did get the whole Chinese American thing, but they also felt like unless I was actively trying to come back to the motherland, I was just a "jook sing" girl (hollow bamboo reed--like calling someone a "banana"--and if you don't know what a banana is, try thinking of "oreo" or "apple" or "coconut"--there's a whole food cornocopia for calling people white-washed).

Anyway, one last thing--I deleted the first comment by "johnsonwood" because apparently the link directs you to some soft-core porn site of interracial "love"--ACK! It feels so icky that someone would post to this site whose translation of inter-racial is of the sexual-fetish ilk.

Dale Lam and Les Mizzell said...

My wife (American born Chinese) and myself (Caucasian) had the opportunity to take our dance company, the Columbia City Jazz Dance Company (CCJC), for 5 weeks during the summer of 2005. CCJC is an ethnically mixed company, so we had a pretty interesting group traveling.

My poor wife, not really fitting in here in the southern USA, thought she might fit in there, but in most cities, they could spot her coming a mile off. She just carries herself differently than the native Chinese people do and they could tell before she even opened her mouth with her Southern US accent. I'm not so sure she wants to repeat the experience.

In some of the smaller cities we visited and performed in, I'm pretty sure they had never seen westerners before, and especially black skinned Americans. People would approach us in crowds on the street, touch the black kids skin, feel the blond girls hair ... a really weird experience if you've never had it happen before.

I've got a full travelogue HERE.

It was, probably the most amazing thing I've ever done my entire life, and on the other hand, probably the most difficult at the same time.

Jennifer said...

Chinese Americans do literally look different from mainland Chinese (or even Hong Kong/Taiwanese people)--largely due to diet, I think (much more milk in an American diet) but I do remember reading a linguistics study that said literally that people's mouths and facial structures are shaped by the language they speak. That English speakers will have different facial structures than French or Mandarin speakers.

Anyway, I envy your trip to China--I would love to do such a tour, as challenging as I think it would be for me (in many different ways) it would certainly be remarkable.

c said...

So this is late.


I have spent the last 4 or so years in Viet Nam. I have met the same person maybe a hundred times in the past 4 years - Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) who've come to Viet Nam to find some essential thing they're meant to find here because they are Vietnamese-American-Australian-German -etc.

There are many overseas Vietnamese here, many who've come for work, family, what have you. But those on The Mission to Find The Thing that Makes Them Who They Are tend to be deeply conflicted. The Viet Nam they find it not the Viet Nam of their childhood; of their parents recounting. The culture they expect is not the culture they find. That Vietnamese can be as banal, insincere, thoughtless and rude as Everyone Else back home comes as an astounding shock. That they are not considered Vietnamese by the local population is a huge shock - usually because they self identify as Vietnamese within the context of their home culture. The journeys they undertake and the transformations they go through are fascinating to see.

I don't think you need to travel to China. You would know yourself if you needed to travel to China, it would be something inside of you, gnawing at you.

But I bet if you did - and you stayed for a decent amount of time (at least (absolute minimum) a year) - it would fundamentally transform how you perceive yourself to be because your own identity politics is incredibly important to you. It would be impossible for it not too.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for your comment--and it's never too late to leave a comment, especially one as interesting/insightful as yours.

Your observation about Vietnamese diasporic people coming "back" (in many cases I'd imagine they are traveling to Viet Nam for the first time) to Viet Nam jibes with the ones I've read about/researched and heard about from friends.

My title was very rhetorical since I don't think I need to travel to find "who I am"--although I agree, I think if I spent a year in China I'd certainly gain a very different perspective about myself as Chinese American, but I also imagine if I spent a year anywhere outside of the U.S. esp. in a country where English is not the primary language or where American/Western culture is so pervasive.

But there is part of me that does wonder about the tug of family and ancestral ties--that there would be something different about me spending a significant amount of time in China, given my family's history, and that even if I spent a year in Korea, it would be different because of the lack of direct personal connection in terms of the family stories I've grown up with (although I would find it fascinating to live in Korea for a year given what little I've read about Korean culture).

At any rate, I hope you feel free to write back and leave another comment!